How am I in these days of pandemic panic and lockdown ennui?
I’m not OK, but I’m OK. Let me explain.
In another couple of days it will be two full months since I’ve seen anyone in person besides my spouse. I’m one of the lucky ones. I haven’t been laid off from my main gig (English professor at a medium-sized university). I haven’t gotten sick with Covid-19 (at least not yet--more on that later). The home I share with my spouse is comfortable, full of good stuff to keep me busy (books and music mainly) and is not in danger of foreclosure.
So why do I feel like shit most of the time?
Well, a few reasons. First of all, I’m lonely for company other than my spouse and myself. I miss the faces, voices, and laughter of my friends. I miss the casual interactions with people in now-unavailable social settings like bars, restaurants, and used record stores. I pride myself on trying to add kindness and value to my contacts with others, even (or especially) strangers.
And, because music is a huge part of my life, I miss other musicians. I miss the way my soul vibrates when people gather in a room--a basement, a coffee shop, a dive bar--to mix their instruments and voices together in a way that has never happened before and will never happen again. Sure, you can record it, but a picture of lightning is not the same thing as lightning, if you get my drift. And I love the tingle of that electricity.
I’ve been playing music all my life, way longer than I’ve been teaching, and maybe even longer than I’ve been going to school. I’m realizing that the music part of me is sort of a split personality. On one side of that split is the obsessive loner artist--the person who sits alone in his or her room for hours, fussing over lyrics, chord voicings, arrangements, overdubs on a multi-track tape machine. For that part of me, this “shelter-in-place” thing should be a dream come true.
But I’m learning that the loner artist part of me is like the left half of a body that doesn’t know what to do without the right half, which is now in anesthetized lockdown. That numbed other half is the social, collaborative part of me--the adventurous, mess-making, playful artist, who loves to get together with other players, listeners, and dancers to make a big noise and see what happens.
But right now, such group experiences are not safe. The places where such collective moments happen are mostly dark, and the bands mostly (if temporarily) dis-banded. Stranded with my solitary creative self, I feel like a basic chemical element that that only acquires texture and flavor when it’s part of a compound that includes other, disparate elements.
These days many of my fellow musicians are striving to keep going creatively and economically under the same alienating conditions. They are live-streaming on Facebook--mostly solo, out of necessity--from their basements and living rooms, performing a virtual approximation of an actual set at a bar or a club, with a PayPal or a Venmo link substituting for the otherwise ever-present tip jar.
And I love them for doing it. But it’s like watching them through a microscope, or listening to them through a narrow pipe that only conveys certain frequencies of their vibrancy as artists and as fellow human beings. More than anything, their virtual performances remind me of how much I miss them--not the image of them, which I can see on the screen, or their songs and voices, but the full bandwidth of their presence, which I can always feel even from the back of a large room like The Turf Club or First Ave.
A live stream of thunder is not the same thing as thunder.
While auditing one of these streams I may hit a “like” or “love” button; I may type out an encouraging or admiring comment; maybe I’ll even haul out the credit card and send a virtual fiver to someone’s PayPal account. I’ve tried it from the other side too, sharing some of my own in-the-house performances to Facebook and YouTube via Quicktime and other such apps. But all I can feel when I do this is a gradual buildup of psychic pressure in my chest, as if my lungs have filled with air that I’m unable to expel.
I’m beginning to realize that I feel shitty these days because I don’t know when, if ever, I will again play or hear live music in a community setting. Even if the venues where that kind of thing happens were allowed (or able) to reopen, I don’t see myself jumping right back into them. At least not for the foreseeable future.
Why not? Because I could die.
That might sound overly dramatic, but it’s not an unreasonable caution. I’m 67, and I carry a couple other risk factors, including a heart condition whose most salient symptom is an occasional but acute shortness of breath. I’m convinced that Covid-19 might well be the end of me. I can easily see myself dying alone on a ventilator if I’m not careful enough. (It didn’t help that one of my main musical heroes and influences, John Prine, died in pretty much that way during the first days of the Covid-19 Era.)
The problem is, there’s no way to know what’s “careful enough” given our current knowledge of the virus and its patterns of transmission. (Not to mention the incompetence and venality of our execrable national leadership--but that’s a topic for another time.) It shouldn’t be news that the spaces where people typically share live music make perfect platforms for super-spreader events. They’re intimate, they’re dynamic, and they are above all about bodiesin various kinds of contact. That’s the appeal, of course, but it’s an appeal I feel I need to resist--at least until we get to a demonstrably effective vaccine.
In other words, I am living out the pandemic version of that old clichéd question: Are you willing to die for your art?(Funny, I always envisioned that as a death by starvation.) And I guess my answer is, no, it’s better to live even though sometimes it feels like dying. If given the power to choose, I’ll take chronic shortness of breath over a palpable risk of actual suffocation.
I’m not the romantic I once was. Neil Young once sang that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. That made sense to me when I was 30, just as Jim Morrison’s exhortation to make love an orgiastic, all-consuming “funeral pyre” sounded cool to me when I was 20. But at this point I’ll settle for keeping the pilot light going on a low, slow burn--even if, for the time being at least, that means just sitting still and listening to the shallow sound of my own lonely breath.
So I still feel shitty. But at least I still feel, and hope to keep on feeling for a while yet.
A picture of lightning is not the same thing as lightning. But when there’s a decent chance that the lightning could strike you dead, it’s a tolerable substitute.